General Motors is disturbed that somehow millions of school children believe that air pollution can seriously ravage their health. To change their minds, GM has launched a massive brainwashing campaign to tell them that auto air pollution isn’t so bad and will soon disappear.
The first stage of the auto giant’s strategy is an 18-page booklet, entitled “What is Air Pollution? A Story of Air Pollution and Cars”. It is narrated by a Professor Clean who wears, incidentally, a very prominent “GM” belt buckle. The booklet is being offered free to 62,000 elementary schools in classroom quantities. GM’s public relations staff reports a first printing of one-half million copies, and that’s only a beginning.
Using crayon pictures by 9- and 10-year-olds to illustrate points, the GM booklet attempts to define air pollution, where it comes from, how cars pollute and all the amazing things the car makers are doing to eliminate auto emissions. Along with Professor Clean, there is Harry Hydrocarbon, Charlie Carbon Monoxide, 011ie Oxide of Nitrogen and Pete Particulate Matter as the chief characters of this country’s largest corporate polluter’s story.
One important omission from the booklet is any treatment of what air pollution does to undermine human health. No mention, for example, is made of air pollution’s causing disease (such as lung ailments), soiling, damaging property, harming natural beauty and recreation, and endangering transportation. Insidiously, the various pollutants from autos are portrayed as little pixie “demons” that are very often harmless, sometimes annoying but generally going away fast.
Harry Hydrocarbon is described as a “harmless demon” if he is just by himself. The traditional GM line that hydrocarbons are a problem only in places like Los Angeles is emphasized. This is not true, of course, as numerous medical and public health research findings have shown. Furthermore, the children are not informed by this corporate anesthetic that hydrocarbons contain cancer-causing elements.
It is not surprising, though still ignoble, that GM would stoop to such levels of manipulation. After all, for years, it has produced over half the motor vehicles and over 25 percent of the air pollution (by tonnage) in the nation. For years, it colluded with other domestic auto companies to restrain the development and marketing of auto pollution control systems, according to Justice Department documents obtained from the auto industry in an antitrust case (The case was settled in 1969 with a promise by the companies not to collude anymore). For decades, its massive treasury has been applied to styling and horsepower, at the expense of safety and new kinds of engines that would prevent pollution and give motorists more fuel for their dollar.
These are some of the facts that the school children should learn and discuss. They should also know what the GM booklet baldly leaves out, for instance:
1. Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas and is harmful in very low concentrations. (Instead, the children are told that CO is blown away by the wind except in cities with lots of cars crowded together where too much of Charlie Carbon Monoxide is “not a good thing to have.”)
2. Lead is not the only particulate that comes from cars as GM claims. Nor is lead used only in “some of the gasolines today.” Lead is a component of most of the gasolines burned currently. And enormous quantities of harmful fine particulates of rubber and asbestos are given off from automobiles; the auto industry has given no thought or research to them.
3. The booklet concludes by saying that “Air Pollution from cars has become less and less in the last few years.” This is deliberately misleading.
Pollution controls on recent model cars degrade rapidly in effectiveness after a few thousand driving miles while consuming even more gasoline. Ignored as well is the fact that more cars registering more mileage on the roads have offset any alleged controls on new cars. Of course GM does not mention the mass transit approach to controlling air pollution nor does it indicate how many better kinds of engines can be used to replace the polluting, infernal internal combustion engine that it clings to.
School principals and elementary school teachers can obtain much more accurate and serious materials about air pollution from the Environmental Protection Agency and numerous private conservation and environment organizations. They might also ask that GM recall these booklets and stop polluting young minds with self-serving corporate chicanery.